Almost from the moment they set foot on the Bethlehem (Pa.) campus, students at Lehigh University's College of Business & Economics take on the kinds of creative challenges many undergraduate programs delay for two or three years. In their first intro course, they analyze a case study involving Nike Inc. (NKE) Then they apply what they learn to develop their own products and business plans. Senior Ryan Murray, 22, helped develop a ski helmet with a built-in MP3 player as part of a team when he was only a freshman. "Sometimes it can be rough," he says. "It forces you to learn that in the real world you have to work in groups."
This is what Thomas J. Hyclak, the interim dean, means when he declares that the undergraduate curriculum is about "learning business by doing business." Lehigh lines up consulting projects for some students with big companies such as Boeing Co. (BA) and lets others use the campus as their personal business incubators. One group helped plan Lehigh's new $2.4 million Ulrich Sports Complex. Another drew up a business plan for a new golf course under construction on the school's Goodman campus. "We want students who, when they're interviewing for a job, don't just say, 'I had a 3.5 GPA and was secretary for my frat,"' says Hyclak.
Many of these projects involve an unusual degree of collaboration between business students and those in other programs. Indeed, a big part of Lehigh's appeal is its insistence that students learn to function in the kinds of environments they'll encounter at work: on teams with engineers, writers, and designers. Nearly half participate in an interdisciplinary project that takes them out of the university classroom.
The interaction between the business and engineering schools is particularly rich. With ideas bubbling up from both, there are even some home runs. One group of students has been pivotal in developing a new technology, known as Wi-Fire, that quadruples wireless Internet reception to 1,000 feet. Six local universities and economic development groups are testing and marketing it.
Next up: Lehigh wants to get its alumni more involved. One idea in the offing is to invite those graduates who work on Wall Street to be visiting lecturers, dissecting problems they face at work. Finance majors would then consult on projects and suggest solutions. Not a bad gig for a 19-year-old college kid.
By Lindsey Gerdes